In A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, a microstudy of Russia’s penal system is delivered to the reader with unrelenting power. The subject is accused of espionage and sentenced to rot in a Soviet gulag.
The author, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who died of heart failure in his home near Moscow on Sunday, is the best known exponent of Russian gulag literature. The writer’s clarity on the subject was undoubtedly heightened by his term as a prisoner under Stalin. In spite of this, we find the tormented eccentricities and contradictions of 20th century Russia mirrored in the career of Solzhenitsyn.
In The First Circle Solzhenitsyn focuses on the intricate trappings of the prison system. Not all zeks (or prisoners) lived the tawdry, grotesque lives of Ivan Denisovich. Others serving the state were modestly privileged and could even be rewarded. The workers of the Mavrino Institute, a sharashka or scientific research body, remained in the First Circle of Dante’s Inferno; theirs was, however, a relatively privileged environment in which bread and butter were in ample suppy. The story provides a framework through which to examine the co-option of prisoners by the State and the perpetual circulation of fear and paranoia which propelled the gulag system.
Logic is short-circuited in Solzhenitsyn’s nightmarish vision of totalitarian bureaucracy. No one is immune from the leviathan that may intervene and crush a subject at any given moment, whether through an innocent remark made in public, or a telephone call. Innokentii Volodin, State Counselor in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, thinks he has taken sufficient precautions in warning a scientist of an impending trap implicating him as a traitor.
But his call of warning is noted by a devilishly ingenious machine which examines the particles of human speech to build a picture of the voice, a sort of speech biometric. He is arrested and sent to Lubyanka prison. Solzhenitsyn himself was drafted to work on exactly the kind of technologies which ensnared Volodin during his term as a prisoner in a sharashka.
In 1970, Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel Prize. He did not travel to Stockholm to accept the award, fearing expulsion from the Soviet Union; his eventual deportation took place in 1974. He was exiled first to Switzerland, then the United States, where he completed the last two volumes of his monumental study of the penal system Gulag Archipelago. The three-volume study, crafted with clinical precision between 1973 and 1978, committed to print what his novels had already shown: how diverse, scientific and perversely modern the Soviet Union’s brutal prison program between 1918 to 1956 had been.
While brilliant in his literary work, Solzhenitsyn proved erratic in his philosophical appraisals. He embraced a volatile and increasingly anachronistic blend of nationalism and religion. Although he frequently agreed with fellow dissident Andrei Sakharov, he did not share the latter’s impression that in the 1970s, Russian nationalism was "a sort of peripheral nuisance". "Does not national variety enrich mankind as faceting increases the value of the jewel?" he asked in a collection of essays entitled From Under the Rubble (1975). His writings on this subject were dismissed, as writer John Bayley put it, as those of a "fuddy duddy" lamenting the "disappearance of Holy Russia".
Democrats found him particularly indigestible. While bemoaning robber-baron capitalism, his views remained fundamentally illiberal, hostile to both scientific socialism and liberal democracy. In a 2003 interview with biographer Joseph Pearce, Solzhenitsyn branded humanism as "irreligious anthropocentrism", a breeder of "intellectual chaos".
On his return to Russia in 1994, he was happy to pronounce judgment against Russia’s fledging democracy to members of the Duma. His fondness for Czarist Russia, on the other hand, never abated, being reaffirmed in one of his last works, Two Hundred Years Together (2003). As well as being a whitewash of the dynastic regime, it also constituted a honed strike on Russia’s Jewry. They, he argued, had to be accorded their fair share of blame for the country’s misfortunes.
Residence in the West did not necessarily endear Solzhenitsyn to it. In 2006, he speculated that a plot to encircle Russia had been hatched in Washington and Europe’s capitals, continuing a long tradition of Russian fears and suspicions. Russia, despite posing "no threat", was being threatened by an ever expansive NATO, thereby "encircling Russia from the South".
His embrace by President Vladimir Putin signaled the ultimate demise of democratic impulses in Russia — neither personality had much time for a political philosophy both found distasteful, preferring a nationalistic medium to convey the greatness of Russia’s revival. With cruel irony, the ex-KGB man and the chief interrogator of the Stalinist gulags had more in common than they realized. Both were cogs at different ends of the totalitarian machine, occupants of the First Circle. As for Stalin’s crimes, they have, under Putin, assumed an air of benign necessity.
History, it seems, has stolen its ironical march on Solzhenitsyn.
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